Peter Richards
Verse Press, $12 (paper)
The specter of an oubliette (a dungeon with a door overhead, from the French oublier, meaning “to forget”) and its fornlorn captive, eyes gazing upwards into the light, haunts every poem in Peter Richards’s debut collection. As Lorca in his lecture “On Lullabies” says, “The European cradle song tries only to put the child to sleep, not, as the Spanish one, to wound his sensibility at the same time.” Richards’s poems mimic these terrible Spanish lullabies, creating a soothing but dangerous world in which “god [is] forever sulking in the shadow of his hood” and in whose “garden behind the garden / a birdbath swallows all the birds.” In their Dantesque journeys through this dungeon world, speakers search for an unnamed Beatrice and “the endless / inside her one other mouth.” This “other” remains slightly off-camera, lending the book an air of dejected masculinity: “Her mouth was also a sledge to carry me twice / up pastures of flatness to hills where I lay / now dead to the world and some clouds that I miss.” Many of the poems unfold in a formulaic manner, such as “The Moon is a Moon,” in which Richards concatenates a string of negated metaphors to wonderful effect: “The moon is not a pickled ghost, / nor a face swollen beneath some giant leap. / The moon is not your mother, / nor a bucket of breath longing to breathe.” Elsewhere the formulas generate less heat, as in “On the Conditions Presently Needed,” which mechanically questions its own flat answers: “Who said men? / It’s really only boys / who come out to call her name. / Who said boys?” An unabashedly lyrical book, Oubliette breaks little new poetic ground; instead, throughout the collection, Richards carefully and curiously mines the post-surrealistic landscape he has inherited, making his a noteworthy debut.
—Nick Moudry
City: An Essay
Brian Lennon
University of Georgia Press, $24.95 (cloth)
Brian Lennon’s first book, City, is a sequence of prose poems arranged in six titled sections, beginning with “Broadway,” in which the writer looks down from his room onto the “asphalt sea” of New York. The succeeding sections follow his gaze through the “pageantry” of street life, into the historical past and the past extant, then back into the self, which has disintegrated as the eyes bored outward: “From my desk chair ‘I’ looks down a thoroughfare . . . that vanishes.” The mind behind City becomes a vessel for pure perception—or, in Lennon’s chosen incarnation, a weatherman who knows that “There is nothing in the weather I can control.” The last section, “Nineteen Italian Days,” written in the form of a travel journal, most successfully reflects upon the book’s most persistent concern—namely, how to feel fixed in one’s skin while at the same time belonging to a community that is always changing. In the last section, chains of observations—each fixed in time and place—slip into gear. Coming into Rome we’re made to recognize our arrival there as a delicate miracle—we recall the plane, which “fails to plunge or to explode,” “creaking” over Chicago and landing in “a City of bridges-like-blue-skeletons”; when this figure for the Eternal City comes up again, it recalls the whole passage, bearing the weight of the entire precarious voyage. Only a little mannered, coy, and quoted writing jams the flow from fresh observation to revelation in the book. But when we encounter a way of being that bears upon Lennon’s subject, not just its textual source (“Cellini was the Norman Mailer of the Italian Renaissance. He punches Michelangelo in the nose. He jumps out a window . . .”) we stand, thrilled, in Lennon’s shoes, while Lennon stands in the murk of things—written, lived, and remembered—that came before.
—James S. F. Wilson
The Sex Lives of the Poor and Obscure
David Schloss
Carnegie Mellon University Press, $12.95 (paper)
John Ashbery has said that David Schloss “seems to be reinventing classical forms and meter (not aping them childishly, in the manner of the New Formalists),” but he is wrong. The Sex Lives of the Poor and Obscure reveals its crafted brilliance most when Schloss accepts certain conventions and works strictly within them, while Schloss’s powers fail frequently, and not coincidentally, when he attempts to loosen his prosody to the point of cramming valleys of dull and unstressed sounds between the accented peaks. His poems, true to the book’s title, detail moments of desperation, lust, boredom, and despair in an urban context in the tradition of early twentieth-century American realist novels. The title poem, for example, captures the anticipation of newlyweds longing for and fearing sex as they drive toward Niagara Falls and “On the Staten Island Ferry One Night” finds a potential suicide saved by an encounter that climaxes in oral sex. Schloss’s “Another Model Year” captures the ironic lot of a proletarian in a consumer society with nuanced sensitivity; a man recalls how he used to look at his new model car: “by the hour / from a second-floor apartment window, thinking, / ‘That’s mine – those clean bright successful lines—” / but now, parked in your yard, it’s an admission / of defeat, proof that you can’t afford to think / anymore of how you might never afford another.” Occasionally, Schloss attempts to make his realism fresh by making it crass (“waking into her mouth / as she let her breasts fall from her clothes, / catching his breath as the salt liquid flowed”); too frequently the loose construction of individual lines or the vague eruption of obscure imagery in an otherwise taut and vivid stanza occurs just as a crisp epigrammatic conclusion is attempted. Although in sum Schloss’s craft and vision are exciting gifts to American letters and deserve more praise than can be fitted here, one cannot ignore that both often unravel just when they most need to be stitched with steel thread.
—James Matthew Wilson
Far Out West
Clark Coolidge
Adventures in Poetry, $12.50 (paper)
Clark Coolidge was paying attention when he watched those old westerns. “They had me so dreaming,” he explains, “that I took aim and wrote. Or wrote without hardly aiming to.” In these thirty-nine “poems of humor and duress” Coolidge has got both barrels loaded with American, a sound he gleefully rips off from those “B” scripts—and ain’t it oddly akin to bad boy Pound’s clippity-clopping through his Cantos? Coolidge even saddles up some of Pound’s Li Polike use of image: “Nothing but blue sky and dinner bells / all the rest of your lumpy life.” But this isn’t just a cattle drive of lexicon; the landscape Coolidge canters through is as much contemporary suburban as it is movie set: “Among the blades were deer statues.” We expect a shop-built “nature” to be more controllable than the organic variety, but Coolidge spots the leakage, the parts of the silver screen where the silver flakes off, where a forty-niner’s “gold comes off in the water.” Some would say that if the gold comes off you need better paint. Some would say you need real gold. Coolidge? He just gallops on. And what a trail he takes, twisting through great plastic canyons of ideas about the American. Here you’ll find made-up guys like “Pegleg Holdem” and guys in make-up like Peck, Heston, and De Niro. What’s De Niro doing here? Even Coolidge wants to know: “A bullet crushes the water cooler / (in a western?).” But your Mob characters are as much a distortion screen of American identity as those “Cassidys from the late Thirties.” Still, with all that clear in his sights, Coolidge’s marksmanship relies equally on affection and amazement: “There’s nothing like prime American ugliness.” Especially when it’s shot into succulent little bits by a maverick of this caliber—although “bad aim tends to settle things just as well.” But Coolidge ain’t into Manifest Destiny, no sirree. Call this book the unsettling of the American West.
—Tom Thompson
Mark Doty
HarperCollins, $22 (cloth)
Doty’s sixth book of poems is in many ways a very American book. The collection is essentially a search for the self, for the sources of poetic inspiration, and not least an attempt to make connections between personal experience and the general patterns or conditions of American life. In brief lyrics and more fully realized sequences—and with characteristic attention to the concrete details of everyday existence throughout—Doty explores the geographies and contexts of American life, from remembrances of a New England Fourth of July, to Manhattan’s “fog-wreath’d towers, / gothic dome lit from within, / monument of our aspirations,” to sharply etched portraits of Key West life and the more immediate impact of AIDS on the gay community. While Doty sometimes settles for a cataloguing of observations and a flatness of rhythmic structure which constrains fuller meaning, he succeeds masterfully in poems which cut closer to his abiding preoccupations such as “Essay: The Love of Old Houses,” in which career-long concerns about transience and impermanence find a moment of resolution in the presence of old homes, where “it’s proved that time requires / a deeper, better verb than pass / it’s more like pool and ebb, and double / back again, my history, his, yours.” In “Letter to Walt Whitman,” the collection’s most ambitious sequence, Doty sets Whitman’s hopes for a “Democratic America joined by / delight in the beauty of boys,” against his own experience: “ I’ve felt what I think you meant. . . . /but much of what I’ve known of fellowship / I’ve apprehended in the basest church—where we’re seldom dressed, and the affable / equality among worshippers is / sometimes like your democratic vista.” The hovering presence behind Source, in fact, is Whitman, who represents for Doty the democratic vision of America at its most idealistic, the gay poet who managed to glorify love of the same sex, to somehow conjoin the political, the personal, and the poetic act.
—Carol Bere
The Seven Ages
Louise Glück
Ecco/HarperCollins, $12.95 (paper)
The Seven Ages presents Louise Glück at her most wise and most necessary. “Earth was given to me in a dream / In a dream I possessed it.” In this book, Glück’s ninth, the poet steps outside the all-engrossing dream of possession, of longing, of the will to control the world and herself, and from a position of magisterial calm faces forward toward her own death and looks back with sadness and wonder at her life. “And how sad to think of dying / before finding out / anything. And to realize / how ignorant we all are most of the time, / seeing things / only from the one vantage, like a sniper.” The intensity and complexity of Glück’s early work has given way to fresh clarity and simplicity; what in a less-seasoned poet might amount to the obvious is in Glück the utterly required. Her perfect pitch, cleanness of line, and attention to yielding detail (the book is full of surprising and original similes) allow her to strip language bare, to shed the disguises that absorb those caught up in the dream. Her life itself takes on the dimensions of what she calls “fable” without relying as she has in the past on the structure of myth. She revisits the subjects of her previous books—her love affairs, writing life, family—with a lucidity and honesty that pierce: “And the life, in a sense, never completely lived. / And the art always in some danger of growing repetitious. // Why not? Why not? Why should my poems not imitate my life?” Glück is, as ever, bold and unsparing in her willingnesss to expose herself. But The Seven Ages is not simply a replay of past performance; it is a culmination in which Glück is able to realize and accept the power and meaning of life’s own repetitions—of, to use another of Glück’s keywords, Fate.
—Nadia Herman Colburn
Horace, The Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets
Edited by J. D. McClatchy
Princeton University Press, $24.95 (cloth)
Horace was no stranger to the difficulties of poetic imitation and adaptation. Neither his native tongue nor Roman poetic conventions would have easily accommodated his ambition to recreate in Latin the metrics and themes of Greek lyric—to “spin Aeolian song home to Italian verse”—yet the bard succeeded confidently. In the hands of the wrong translator, however, Horace can seem fustian and burdensomely didactic; we’ve become too comfortable reducing his poems to what they “say”: “Live moderately,” “Death is the great equalizer,” etc. The best translations in this collection remind us that, as David Ferry has remarked, it’s all in the performance: “Think less of more tomorrows, more of this / one second, endlessly unique: it’s / jealous, even as we speak, and it’s / about to split again.” That’s Heather McHugh’s own riff, after the semicolon—and pure Horace. The ambiguity of the splitting second (is it leaving, or reproducing?) makes the notion of “carpe diem” anything but easy to grasp. Again and again in Horace figure, idiom, and syntax are sensitive to the inextricability of loss and gain: “See how Soracte, glistening, stands out high in / its cape of snow, how laboring woods let go of / their load.” John Hollander’s choice of “let go” for “nec iam sustineant” isn’t the most literal, but it’s smart: the trees are grateful, but also reluctant. Horace’s sensibility has its own music, and it’s lost in a radical makeover such as Carl Phillips’s skilled but inappropriate shortening of the line in Ode 1.32. But a remarkable number of these new translations get it right: “Winter’s melting in the mild west wind; / time to haul the dry-docked boats to the shore. / The farmer has cabin fever; his pent-up flocks / are itching for the meadow, and the meadow’s / greening already in its morning thaw.” James Lasdun’s rendering of the opening of Ode 1.4 has the elegant fluidity, the sheer grace of movement within and between the lines that makes Horace’s meditative voice so seductive, as assuring as it is self-assured.
—Bryn Canner
Musica Humana
Ilya Kaminsky
Chapiteau Press, $12 (paper)
Ilya Kaminsky’s debut collection is the fourth volume in Chapiteau’s series of beautifully designed hand-stitched chapbooks. Its brevity belies the extent of its ambition: in three long poems, Kaminsky addresses the sorrows and absurd joys of exile, the seemingly inevitable failure of poetry as resistance to political oppression, and the insufficient grace of romantic love. Born in Odessa, deaf since the age of four, Kaminsky writes in a language from which he is doubly estranged, chasing an essential and ungraspable music: “in a language not mine, [I] speak / of music that wakes us, music / in which we move. For whatever I say // is a kind of petition.” Nor does Kaminsky turn his back on his first language, and these poems are haunted by Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Brodsky. In “Musica Humana,” the most impressive poem here, Kaminsky speaks in the voices of Mandelstam, his wife Nedezhda, and the young, belated poet who succeeds in placing himself among their company. Kaminsky makes no apologies for attempting to stake a claim among his great predecessors, but what might in a less impressive collection sound a note of presumption becomes here an act of homage: “Now, memory, pour some beer,” his Mandelstam says, “salt the rim of the glass; you, / who are writing me, have what you want: / a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.” Perhaps it’s inevitable that moments of Musica Humana betray the youth of its author. When for instance in a span of three pages we read “The darkness, a magician,” “memory, an old flautist,” and “Love, a one-legged bird” Kaminsky’s odd metaphorical appositions come to seem more mannered than inspired. But this is a minor complaint about a remarkable debut, one that affords a rare and exhilarating pleasure: the sense of being at the start of something marvelous.
—Garth Greenwell